I hace just finished reading In Season, Out of Season, a book in which Jacques Ellul responds to an interviewer’s questions about his life and thought. Ellul freely admits his thinking and actions have proceeded along two parallel tracks that have remained separate. He is known as a brilliant sociologist and critic of society. On one track he has pioneered as an activist in the French Resistance, in city government, and now in environmental causes. On another track he has pursued a Christian faith that has found expression in a warm devotional life and in personal service as a pastor and seminary professor.

Ellul admits he has never successfully tied together the two strands of his life. His experiences in the corridors of power, as a denominational leader and a politician, cause him to question whether change will ever come within institutions. He wonders if any structure can convey Christian love and compassion. Reading of his struggle started me thinking about the wide crevasse that separates power from love.

If we could somehow chart out the history of the Christian church in a graph as simple and revealing as a stock market report, we would see tremendous surges in the church’s power. First the Christian faith conquered the Near East, and then Rome, then all of Europe. Finally it spread to the New World and ultimately to Africa and Asia. Yet, strangely enough, the peaks of success and earthly power also mark the peaks of intolerance and religious cruelty, the stains of church history we are most ashamed of today. It is as if love cannot coexist with power, and success contains within it the guarantee of a crash to come.

For this reason, I worry about the recent surge of power in the evangelical movement. Once we were ignored and scorned. Now we are featured on the front page of the New York Times, courted by Presidents, interviewed on morning talk shows. Political movements have sprung up with a strongly evangelical scent to them.

Regardless of the merits of a given issue—whether a prolife lobby out of the Right or a nuclear freeze lobby out of the Left—all of these movements flirt with the danger of pulling on to themselves the cloak of power that smothers love. A movement by nature draws lines, makes distinctions, delivers judgment; in contrast, love erases lines, overcomes distinctions, and dispenses grace.

Most assuredly, I am not calling for an ostrich-like stance of hiding from the crucial issues that face the church in a secular society. They must be faced, and addressed, and legislated. But Paul’s words continue to haunt me. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, and have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing.

Somehow, unless our power is to corrode like that of the well-intentioned religious leaders who preceded us, somehow we must approach power with humility, and fear, and a consuming love for those we will exercise it over. Jesus did not say, “All men will know you are my disciples … if you just pass laws, quash immorality, and restore decency to family and government,” but rather “… if you love one another” (John 13:35).

Jesus made that statement, of course, the night before his death. Never have the contrasting styles of God’s power and human power been more openly displayed than that next evening. Human power was represented by the might of the Roman empire and the full force of Jewish religious authorities. God’s power expressed itself through the ultimate act of deliberate powerlessness. The religious leaders flung taunts, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself.”

As I look back on that dark night especially, and on other dark nights in history that have followed, I marvel at the restraint of power God has shown in the face of brutal evil. But as I meditate on God’s self-restraint, at last I begin to see the inherent flaw in any form of power. It can do everything but the most important thing. It cannot force love.

In a concentration camp, as so many have borne poignant witness, the guards can force anything. They can make you renounce your God, curse your family, work without pay, eat human excrement, kill and then bury your closest friend or even your own son. All this is within their power. Only one thing is not: love. They cannot force you to love them.

Love does not operate according to the rules of power, and it can never be forced. In that fact we can glimpse the thread of reason behind God’s use (or nonuse) of power. He is interested in only one thing from us: our love. That is why he created us. And no pyrotechnic displays of omnipotence will achieve that, only his ultimate emptying to join us and then die for us. Herein is love.

Every Sunday school child can quote the deepest theology: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” And, when it all boils down, that is what the Christian gospel is—not a demonstration of power, but a demonstration of love.


I am being clothed with
the clothes of a king

Who one long weekend
long ago
Undressed himself and climbed
upon a Roman tree
That he might, so naked,
outfit me.


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